So the question that continues to haunt me is, Why would a generation of presidents, supported by responsible men like William Perry, engage in a nuclear poker game that no sane gambler would in good conscience play? Why on earth wouldn’t both sides calculate the worst-case scenario and elect not to play the game?
Because all sides are convinced that all other sides will happily annihilate the world rather than allow their opponents to triumph. This is high school social studies shit.
On some nights during the Cold War, I lay awake turning over that question. The only plausible answer I was able to imagine is that they, the two governments, couldn’t help it. They had no choice, or thought they had no choice: the nuclear genie was out of the bottle and both sides seized on deterrence as an existential necessity. But was it?
Au contraire. Reagan and Gorbachev discussed total disarmament in 1985:
In January 1986, Gorbachev wrote Reagan with a proposal: eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2000. “Why wait until the year 2000?” Reagan responded to aides in the Oval Office.
But moving on:
The NSC-68 document, prepared for the National Security Council by Paul Nitze and staff, endorsed by Dean Acheson, who was then secretary of state, was presented to President Harry S Truman in 1950. This document asserted that the leaders of the Soviet Union were a secretive cabal of atheistic revolutionaries, obsessed by a “fanatic faith” that drove them “to impose [their] authority over the rest of the world.”... Although they did not want war, these same Soviet leaders assumed that the U.S. government was in the hands of a clique of greedy capitalists who were bent on not just destroying the Soviet Union but establishing a world capitalist hegemony. Therefore, nuclear arms were essential for the survival of their way of life.
Because of containment both the US and USSR could only know what they stole. It wasn't a cold spat or a cold disagreement it was a cold war.
What Perry recognized, however, at the end of his government career, was that the game of nuclear deterrence contained a fatal trap. He saw that if the game were played long enough, a misunderstanding would inevitably occur, a miscalculation would be made, the empty pistol would unaccountably discharge: the nuclear trap would snap shut, with a very large bang.
That's an opinion, not a fact. The likelihood of nuclear exchange has decreased every day since December 25, 1991. In fact, up until a couple weeks ago we were helping the Russians dispose of weapons-grade plutonium.
Meantime, as if the past didn’t exist, western leaders and their Russian counterparts are on the march again, flags flying, into a new Cold War. Russia is now engaged in a gigantic new program to rebuild nuclear arms. This includes new ICBMs with multiple warheads, a new generation of nuclear submarines, and a whole new array of shorter-range nuclear weapons.
Of course they are. Same reason they invaded Crimea. Nobody gonna gripe about the lack of food when all the plowshares are being beaten into swords. Got something else disingenuous to say?
As if in tandem, the United States is now committed to a trillion-dollar program over 30 years that will not only refurbish the current stockpile of nuclear weapons but also create a new generation of smaller nuclear weapons that will be easier (and thus more likely) to be used.
Perfect. Let's conflate nuclear stewardship and conventional weapons design as if they have anything to do with each other. I knew plenty of people who were arguing for planned warhead senescence back during the go go Weinberger days but let's be honest - it ain't gonna happen while Russia is re-upping and North Korea is testing every nine months.
In short, the world has once again grown not less but more dangerous.
Here's a miniature nuclear weapon.
By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis we had 2100 of them in the field. Yet we lived.
We are right back where we were in 1950.
Bitch, please. On the one hand, we're hella worse off than 1950 because the Soviets had a nuke and the f'n Rosenbergs were still alive. On the other hand, the NRO has at least 26 active spy satellites in the air right now providing instantaneous intelligence down to 15cm resolution. The Russians can probably launch within 6 hours; we can probably launch within 30 minutes but nobody is seriously expecting anybody to do so.
And we really did. We really did. And we don't anymore. And if nukes weren't launched by mistake in 1962, and if nukes weren't launched by mistake in 1979, and if nukes weren't launched by mistake in 1980, and if the fucking Red Army can shell Yeltsin in his palace without anybody lofting an SS-N-Fuckyou towards anybody else, I think we can all honestly agree that whatever pecadilloes we currently experience over hacked emails or whatever is likely to blow over without so much as a hint of armageddon.